So when I started playing Shelter, I knew what I was getting myself into. I realized I’d be playing a momma badger protecting her momma badger babies. I knew there would be tears. Mommas cry, and that’s ok; crying isn’t just for badger babies, it’s for momma badgers, too. Playing a momma badger, you’re bound to have the strings of your heart tugged a little.
But then I barked as a momma badger, and my litter barked back at me. It was adorable. And then I picked up some food, and they all started running around me excitedly, vying for my attention in a desperate plea to be fed. Ok, so the point I’m making is that the game sets you up as a mom and really gets you attached to the little baby badgers that are relying on your efforts. From the get go, you find yourself in a cave and one of your babies is sick on the floor. The first thing you have to do is cater to the little guy, feeding him so he gets his strength back. While it might’ve not been quite as an emotional trial as I’m claiming, it was certainly a great beginning to a game that wants you to get attached to the experience.
Several things really stand out. The first is tone, and while tone is a thing that’s difficult to define, it’s like gravity: you can’t see it, but you feel its effects. Little baby badgers doing little baby badger things means Shelter has its tone carried well. The second thing I look for, a thing that isn’t quite as amorphous, is the novelty of an idea. A game can pitch an idea to me that’s different and get away with having some problems with its execution; it’s the nature of trying new things. And while playing animals might not be entirely unique in the gaming world, playing a mother badger whose only goal is protecting her baby badgers is different, to say the least.
What I’m saying is that the value of Shelter isn’t in its gameplay, its graphics, or its core mechanics, it’s in the concept of the game. It’s defamiliarization at its most unique; you are literally taking a concept not foreign to humanity, i.e. the idea of being a mom, and twisting it to fit another angle. You’re a mother badger, trapped in a wide and wild world, and the best part about it is the little pups actually endear themselves to you in the tiniest of ways. Their playful little barks, their almost latent desperation, childish but still potent, puts you in a place you might not be comfortable in. And that’s awesome.
Graphically, Shelter is good for what it’s trying to accomplish. It embellishes on little, keeping things functional and light, while also giving you a feeling of immensity. The open sky, the cliff sides, the waterfalls all feed into a feeling of pure wilderness. And while the structure of the setting is obvious, with your path pretty much being set for you by cliffs and other natural obstacles, I found this agreeable to the game’s play style. There wasn’t much of a tutorial, and what little tutorial you get comes in small ways, like a pop up every now and again. The controls aren’t difficult, and the structured world ensures you’re going to get the tips you need. A completely open universe wouldn’t be good anyway, as it would leave you feeling lost as a momma badger in a world far larger than you can stand, with controls far too simple to deal with the challenges in front of you. The world isn’t completely linear, though; it’s just not as open as some of the usual sandbox games you see today. It’s the perfect size for the needs of the game.
As I said earlier, the core game mechanics of Shelter are simple, involving, at most, a handful of buttons. You interact with the world in different ways depending on the object you’re focusing on. If prey is in front of you, a rat or some smaller animal, you can lunge and crush it in your jaws. Need that apple hanging from that tree? Head-butt the tree and watch as the apple falls to the ground, your badger babies gobbling it up hungrily.
And the thing about Shelter is that it’s actually kind of a traumatic experience; at one point I lost one my baby badgers, and I totally panicked. I still don’t know where the little guy went; one minute he was right next to me and his siblings, and the next minute he was completely gone, engulfed by the night air. And the game doesn’t stop there, either. Not only do your baby badgers go missing at times, but there are real predators stalking you, and often all you can see is an eagle’s shadow hovering over you like a Klingon Warbird, waiting to swoop down and gobble up your precious ones. It makes for a fantastic feeling of drama and energy, and while the game isn’t all that exciting, it’s not easy, either. It’s about using cover and prowess to both hunt for game and to keep from becoming game yourself.
It’s a traumatic experience, but it’s a good traumatic experience. The game is different; you need to be clever; knee jerk reactions and even strategy won’t help you here. You need to be in the moment, controlling the situation. And, in the end, Shelter’s about protecting what you love. I won’t lie: that’s legit.